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Unions and the Return of the Middle Class

union-membership-by-state-map.thumbnail.gifAs a member of a union that I have to wonder about sometimes (ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association) I think it’s certainly worthwhile to talk for a minute about the Employee Free Choice Act and the role of unions in building a stronger middle-class and hence stronger America. Why do I wonder about ALPA? More on that in a minute…

A quick and simplistic review for those not old enough to remember the ultimate Federal Union Buster, Ronnie Reagan and his most excellent (in his mind) PATCO adventure. In 1981 the air traffic controllers union decided to go on strike and the controllers were fired by Reagan for violating a federal law banning strikes by governmental unions, although previous strikes by other governmental unions like the Postal Workers had not been punished by terminating their employees. Reagan’s views of unions was the same as virtually every other major republican figure of the 70’s and 80’s; that unions were the creation of the devil and the antithesis of American/Free Market capitalism and thus should be put down like Old Yeller… with a single shot to the head, but without the emotion.

Reagan’s war on labor began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted, that was "an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear — illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."

Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were designed originally to protect and further the rights and interests of workers and their unions.

Reagan’s attitude towards unions was a bit surprising, as he had far more success as president of the Screen Actors Guild (seven terms) than as an B-List star in Hollywood. Federal Reagan spent a lot of time and effort successfully convincing Americans in the 80’s that their corporate overlords were far more deserving of their attention and obeisance than were any unions or their representatives… it was in many ways the beginning of the time when the republicans discovered that in fact, American could be easily convinced to vote against their own self-interests and disbelieve their own lying eyes even when confronted with evidence that they were being screwed.

So Reagan managed to cement an image in the minds of many, many Americans that unions were (and are) an evil not to be borne or countenanced by them, an attitude that both delights and empowers employers in their quest to marginalize their workers and keep stuffing their bottom-lines at the expense of their workforce, something that has led to the decline of both real wages and loss of jobs here in the US as we have tried to bring our economy and workforce into the 21st Century.

The Employee Free Choice act is a tool that is being advocated by the AFL-CIO and others to help America begin to rebuild it’s middle-class infrastructure and guarantee that jobs, good and services we offer in this country are both economically competitive in a global market-place, but also are of sufficient quality that consumers world-wide will prefer American goods and services to similar goods and services provided from Asian or other competitor countries. A move to a union workplace can be a win-win for employers and employees who begin to see a union as a partnership, and not a master-indentured servant relationship…

All that labor wonk stuff is important, but it overlooks the economic and political potential of meaningful labor law reform. Everyone is lamenting the outsourcing of those “high-paying” manufacturing jobs, but we tend to forget that those jobs used to be crappy low-paying jobs before the CIO turned them into coveted good-paying jobs. In Las Vegas—what many refer to as the River Rouge of the service sector—the labor movement is not only delivering the goods, but delivering them to those that have been traditionally ignored by the labor movement. The members of today’s Las Vegas Culinary union are 65 percent nonwhite, 70 percent female, and full of recent immigrants. As Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand, explained, "Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week. Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage." A new blue-collar golden age might just rise from the despair of today’s Nickel and Dimed world.

The recent economic downturn, and the collapse of once-mighty banks and investment houses does not directly bear on the Employee Free Choice act, but the obscenely fat and bloated salaries paid to the allegedly competent leaders, cronies and henchmen have begun to underscore in a way not visible before that workers at every level need a voice in their company and without the representation of a union that’s probably not going to happen in most organizations.

Productivity in this country has gone up, the work ethic of the American worker is still pretty damn good but the recognition and rewards offered by management in many, many non-union shops is borderline pathetic. We as workers are expected to answer the question "so what have you done for me today?" daily with little or no thought by management to what our achievements might have been yesterday, despite the fact that yesterdays accomplishments are the basis of todays success, and management literally could give a crap about that fact. Adoption of the EFCA will allow workers to unionize with less management interference, and allow workers to begin to hold management as accountable for their actions as management has held workers over the last thirty years since Reagan began to crusade against American workers and for his business buddies.

Obama, a current co-sponsor of the EFCA needs to clearly connect his support for the Employee Free Choice Act to his vision for rebuilding the middle class, and we as progressives need to connect the EFCA to obtaining 60 seats in the Senate, getting a filibuster-proof Senate majority to allow its passage as a way to begin rebuilding our country and economy.

It’s our country, and if a union can help provide the health-care, benefits and wages that help us sustain the productivity and competitiveness of our country in this impending global recession, how do Americans lose from that? Well, Americans who have not made obscene amounts of money on the backs of their workers, and given little to nothing back to anyone.

Oh, and I like and support ALPA, but I do wish that IMHO, they would spend less time making my fellow pilots believe that the image Reagan sold was/is true… so many pilots pay their dues but truly believe that their officers and leaders spend inordinate amounts of money and time catering to their own self-interests and being too cozy with the airlines when the going gets tough and that sure does not help sell ALPA to new members or pilots at non-union airlines who are looking for the help and support that a union should provide.

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Jo Fish

Jo Fish

Jo started blogging when the right-wingers started making utter, complete asses of themselves, which would be since around 2002 or so in their current incarnation as mind-sucking zombies.

A life-long Democrat and career DFH whose parents voted for all the Kennedys at one time or another, he still has an "RFK for President" banner in his garage from 1968.

Jo still flies airplanes for a major airline, and is proud of his safety record: his take-offs and landings are still equal in number. The cost of fuel may soon end that career, in which case he's planning to become a pan-handler or investment banker, whichever is more prestigious.